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Florida Sees Eighth Straight Month of Job Growth

January 22nd, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Florida has experienced eight straight months of job growth according to the report released Friday from the Department of Economic Opportunity.

The report shows positive signs in the Florida economy with jobs increasing and unemployment rates dropping.

Florida’s unemployment rate for December was 6.1 percent.

It’s down two tenths of a percent from November, but even as the unemployment rate improves, there are still pockets of sky high unemployment in tourism heavy counties.

Osceola, Miami-Dade and Orange Counties all have unemployment rates over seven percent.

“And so just the nature of their industry makeup has led to an elevated unemployment rate,” said Adrienne Johnston, Bureau Chief of Workforce Statistics and Economic Research at DEO.

But Chief Economist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce Dr. Jerry Parrish has high hopes for a faster than anticipated recovery of the state’s tourism industry.

“I will guarantee you that as soon as people get vaccinated and feel comfortable again, we’re going to see a big return of visitors from other states and other countries,” said Parrish.

And Johnston said overall, the numbers are trending in the right direction.

“Seeing labor force actually increasing while our unemployment rate is going down,” said Johnston.

While the numbers are trending in the right direction, the state still has a ways to go to get to its pre-pandemic unemployment rate of 2.8 percent.

But as the Chamber points out, four of the state’s major industries, manufacturing, construction, finance and education and health services have nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels.

“So other than leisure and hospitality, which has obviously taken a big hit, I think Florida is doing really well,” said Parrish.

Florida’s new unemployment rate represents 614,000 people out of a job and actively looking for a new one.

DEO’s report also identified at least 64,000 people who stopped looking for work all together and therefore not counted in the unemployment rate.

The Florida Chamber attributes the positive economic trend in Florida to the state’s decision to reopen schools and businesses.

Florida hovers half a point lower than the national unemployment rate of 6.7 percent.

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State Stops Publishing Number of Floridians Overdo for COVID Booster

January 21st, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Department of Health is no longer publishing the number of people who are overdue for their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Department told us the number was causing confusion, but some state lawmakers argue the move is yet another example of a lack of transparency.

High demand and low supply continues to plague the COVID vaccine rollout.

“People are calling my office desperate, yelling, screaming. Elderly, infirm, sick people and they can’t get a vaccine,” said State Senator Lori Berman.

Some hospitals have stopped giving out first doses to ensure an adequate supply for those who are eligible for booster shots.

As of the last reported numbers, there were more than 40,000 Floridians classified as overdue for their second shot.

To the dismay of some Florida lawmakers, the Department of Health decided Wednesday to stop publishing those statistics.

“You know, the more data the better to help our government make informed decisions and for the public to hold the government accountable,” said state Representative Anna Eskamani.

In an emailed statement, DOH told us the decision to stop reporting the numbers is two fold.

One, it said the stats aren’t reported by the CDC.

“This number is being removed to align with CDC reporting, which only includes information on first dose and series complete (first and second dose),” said Jason Mahon, Interm DOH Communications Director.

And two, it said the designation was misleading.

“this number is being removed as it may cause confusion related to the following CDC guidance,” said Mahon.

That guidance from the CDC said in part, “There is no maximum interval between the first and second doses for either vaccine.”

Mahon said it means no one is in fact ‘overdue’.

“No one is overdue for their second dose, but rather, will be eligible for their second dose. The Department of Health continues to recommend that individuals receive their second dose at 28 days for the Moderna vaccine, or 21 days for the Pfizer vaccine,” said Mahon.

Lawmakers we spoke with still argue it would be beneficial to know how many people who are eligible for the second dose are in the pipeline.

“So that we can provide clarity and comfort and answers to Floridians that are waiting their turn,” said Eskamani. “Not providing insight into how many people need a second booster shot impacts the timeline for when our teachers can get vaccinated, for when our essential workers can get vaccinated. At this point we’re operating without a transparent plan.”

The lawmakers we spoke with also said they are hopeful the new Biden Administration will work to ramp up vaccine production and better communicate to the states how much vaccine they can expect to receive on a long term basis.

We did ask for an interview with the Surgeon General and the Director of the Division of Emergency Management for this story to provide more clarity, but our requests went unanswered.

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Alleged Extremist Asks for Release

January 21st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Federal Court testimony in the case of a Tallahassee man charged with making a threat over the Internet to kidnap and harm protestors at the State Capitol painted the 33-year-old man as either a dangerous extremist or a man whose friends think is a loose cannon, who used over enthusiastic words on the internet.

The FBI arrested Daniel Baker last Friday after he distributed a flyer both on and off line.

It calls for right-wing Capitol protestors to be encircled and trapped inside the building.

In a video, Lawrence Keefe, US Attorney for Florida’s Northern District, said the arrest sent a message.

“We will take all appropriate actions against credible threats,” said Keefe.

The FBI testified Baker came to their attention after returning from fighting against the Syrian Government.

Federal prosecutors argued that Baker’s decade of homelessness and his written threats, are reason to keep him behind bars.

A roommate, a friend and his landlord all painted a picture of a good, but hapless individual.

“And he’s just a joy to be around. He’s bright, he’s energetic, he’s an entrepreneur. He’s volunteering for all kinds of things in the community. He’s the kind of person we more of,” said Suzanna Matthews, Baker’s landlord.

“He’s an eccentrically spoken person, so I would take it all with a grain of salt,” Desiree Dattis, Baker’s friend.

Dattis is a teacher and homeless advocate.

She first met Baker a decade ago.

She eventually let the homeless man camp in her backyard for a year.

“He’s a genuinely a nice guy and this just a lot of talk,” said Dattis.

And Baker’s roommate Eric Champagne told the court Baker did not want to hurt anyone.

“The FBI themselves were warning about this and I think he took the FBI warning seriously and I think he was just trying to protect his neighbors,” said Champagne.

And the Federal Public Defender admitted that Baker could be shaky, but that he would benefit from mental health sessions if he is released.

The judge did not rule from the bench and said a written order with be forthcoming.

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Arrest Made in Connection to False Bomb Threat at Capitol

January 21st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

61-year-old Mark Wayne Clark of Tallahassee was arrested for making a false report of a bomb at the State Capitol.

The call came from a bar several miles to the east of the building just before 3 AM.

The threat was overheard by one of the bar’s employees and police were called.

The arrest was made at the bar.

Employees at the Capitol were kept out of the building until 9 AM Thursday morning while police used explosive sniffing K-9’s to determine the threat was a hoax.

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State Capitol Protest Calm

January 20th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Threats of a large protest on Inauguration Day and violent counter demonstrators failed to materialize at the state Capitol Wednesday.

Just a few came to have their voices heard peacefully.

The show of force was continual.

Troopers were stationed under the Capitol, police drones were in the air, the National Guard was on the Capitol’s roof and spotters were on nearby buildings.

Police and reporters outnumbered demonstrators.

Len Murray drove in from Ft. Lauderdale, motivated by the riot at the US Capitol two weeks ago.

“We’ve got to heal the nation. We’ve got except the election. It’s been tried in the courts,” said Murray, who described himself as an independent.

“If violence breaks out, I’m going home,” said Robert Allen, another protestor who drove from Brandon to the Capitol.

Unlike our nation’s Capitol, police in Tallahassee proved it was better to be over prepared.

Trump supporters Earl and Susie Austin made the drive from Jacksonville.

“And we’re just trying to make a little bit of protest over the way the elections were ran, how poorly it was done,” said Earl.

Also from Jacksonville, retired navy vet Jamie Fucito.

“Just wanted to see how many patriots would show up,” said Fucito.

We asked if he was disappointed by the low turnout.

“Yeah I am,” said Fucito.

Two women from St. Augustine wouldn’t talk with us until we coaxed this response.

”We don’t trust the media,” said one of the women.

The were also two women who came dressed as angels.

 

They sang Amazing Grace, promoting peace not politics on their agenda.

“God told us to come today,” said one of the women, who called herself only ‘Angel Paula’.

A man arrested last week for attempting to incite violence counter protests at the Capitol has his first appearance Thursday in Federal Court when his request to be released on bond will be heard.

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Florida GOP Lawmakers Weary of New Administration

January 20th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

With a new administration comes new optimism or pessimism for state lawmakers, depending on which side of the political aisle they fall on.

Legislators are already setting expectations for how the new President may impact the state.

It was no secret that under the Obama Administration, the Republican Florida Legislature and Governor often found themselves at odds with the federal government.

Now the conservative controlled state government is gearing up for at another four years under a liberal President.

“I just hope we don’t see a Federal Government that tries to push the state farther to the left than it’s ready to go like we saw with the administration of President Obama,” said State Senator Ray Rodrigues.

Rodrigues worries the work to expedite everglades restoration under the Trump administration could be impacted by President Joe Biden.

“We could see the Federal Government go back to the ways that they did under President Obama and just put Everglades restoration on the back burner,” said Rodrigues.

The Governor has also raised some concerns.

As Trump goes, so does his tight personal relationship with the Oval Office.”

“I may not be a phone call away from getting everything done soon,” said Governor Ron DeSantis in a December interview.

Florida Republicans are also critical of Biden’s plan to involve FEMA in vaccine distribution.

“We don’t need additional bureaucrats to get the vaccine out and into the arms of Floridians. What we need are more vaccines,” said Rodrigues.

But Florida Democrats like State Senator Lori Berman argue the state should take help wherever it’s offered.

“And I don’t know why the Governor would in any way not be in favor of something that’s going to get more vaccines in peoples’ arms,” said Berman.

And while Republican state legislators may have their concerns at the federal level, what happens here in Florida ultimately is still in their hands, as it has been since Republicans took control of both the Florida House and Senate in 1997.

And some State Lawmakers are looking to honor the outgoing President here in Florida.

Legislation filed on Inauguration Day would rename U.S. Highway 27 the “President Donald J. Trump Highway”.

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Medical Marijuana Prescription Puts Woman’s Professional License at Risk

January 19th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Floridians have been legally prescribed medical marijuana since 2017, but there’s nothing in state law that prohibits employers from discriminating against patients.

Advocates are hoping 2021 will bring employment protections for the state’s nearly half million medical marijuana patients.

Megan Kahn graduated with a degree in social work last year.

She got her professional license soon after and around the same time was prescribed medical marijuana.

Then she got a job offer in her field.

“I sent in all my documentation. I sent in a picture of my card and my prescription. Everything,” said Kahn.

But the job offer was revoked when THC showed up in her drug test.

“This is a clear cut case of medical discrimination,” said Josephine Cannella-Krehl, founder of MMJ Knowledge.

The employer went even further, and reported her as an ‘impaired clinician’.

Megan was told she would have to complete a year-long rehab program or lose her license.

“I can’t even drink alcohol. It’s abstinence completely,” said Kahn.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried told us medical marijuana employment discrimination is affecting almost every industry.

“We need to start to realize this is a medicine and people are taking it for medical benefits and they should not be discriminated against inside of their workforce,” said Fried.

Employment protection legislation was filed in the State Legislature last year, but never got a committee hearing.

Advocates hope lawmakers will see it differently this year, with more than 600,000 unemployed Floridians looking to rejoin the workforce.

For now, Megan and other patients will have to choose between their medicine and their livelihoods.

“It’s really hard to know that, with people doing things legally, people are still being treated like criminals, still losing employment and being discriminated against,” said Kahn.

Megan has found an employer willing to work with her, but she still has to complete the rehab program to save her license.

We reached out to the Department of Health and asked what if any rule or policy it has concerning medical marijuana patients and their ability to hold professional licenses.

We have not gotten a response.

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Capitol Security Remains Strong

January 19th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida National Guard troops remain on active duty to protect Florida’s Capitol following an FBI alert that put all 50 state capitol’s on alert over the weekend.

Additional security precautions remain in effect and will continue at least through Wednesday’s Presidential Inauguration.

An occasional helicopter circled the Capitol Tuesday, just as it has since Sunday.

Armed spotters remain on the Capitol itself and surrounding buildings.

On the advice of law enforcement, City Hall and the county courthouse, which sit as bookends on a short street next to the Capitol, are closed for business through Wednesday.

Curtis Richardson is the longest serving Tallahassee City Commissioner.

“There are no services being provided to the general public at this point, because we are hoping people will stay home and not come to the downtown area so that they can be safe and not put themselves and others in harms way,” said Richardson.

Security looks a lot like it does every four years for the Governor’s inauguration with hundreds of officers present, out of sight, unless they are needed.

A flyer produced by the self described leftist radical arrested by the FBI last week calls on demonstrators to answer a call to arms on Wednesday.

Daniel Baker is being held without bond until a hearing the day after the inauguration.

“If you pose a threat to public safety, we will come for you. We will find you. And we will prosecute you,” said US Attorney for Florida’s Northern District Lawrence Keefe.

On Sunday, Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey praised the Governor for sending national guardsmen to protect the Capitol.

“I know that he cares for the safety of Tallahassee and the Capitol Complex as much as I do as well,” said Dailey.

The guards’ deployment order runs through Sunday night, but law enforcement told us the length of the deployment is being reassessed every day.

According the the City of Tallahassee, no one has requested a permit to demonstrate on Inauguration Day.

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Rebekah Jones Bonds Out of Leon County Jail

January 18th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Former department of health employee Rebekah Jones posted bond Monday morning after turning herself in to authorities Sunday night.

Jones is accused of accessing a state emergency alert system and taking confidential information from the department of health.

There were three messages police attribute to Jones.

All of them urged Department of Health employees to ‘speak out before another 17,000 are dead’.

“You have been charged with a third degree felony,” said Judge John Cooper at Jones’ first court appearance.

The state requested she be prohibited from accessing the internet as a condition of her release.

“It’s literally trying to kill a gnat with an axe. It’s simply not practical,” said Jones’ Attorney John Baptiste while arguing against the state’s terms.

The judge declined to prohibit her from internet access across the board.

He set her bail at $2,500 on the condition she not access any state computer systems.

“My point is to ensure that she doesn’t do anything through the internet that is illegal,” said Cooper.

Police confiscated Jones’ computer during a search of her home in December.

In the probable cause affidavit police said they found evidence on Jones’ computer that linked her to the messages.

They also said they found she had downloaded confidential contact information for more than 19,000 people.

Jones is also facing a cyber stalking charge from 2019.

Her latest arrest violated a plea deal that had been previously agreed upon.

Upon her release, Jones had little to say about the charges, but did tell reporters she had tested positive for COVID after entering the jail.

“I just wanted to tell you guys to make sure you take care of your own health. COVID is by no means over and we’re still going to be dealing with this virus for a lot longer,” said Jones.

Jones faces a maximum of six years in prison.

Her lawyer vowed to vigorously fight the charges.

She’s armed with a deep wallet, having raised more than half a million dollars between two Gofundme accounts.

Jones was fired from the Department of Health in May of 2020 for what the state described as ‘insubordination’.

Jones has claimed she was fired for refusing to manipulate COVID statistics put out by the state.

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Capitol Protest Never Materialized

January 17th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

A lone demonstrator was the only person to show up at the State Capitol in Tallahassee today: His message, share the love. While quiet today following an FBI warning that put all fifty state capitols on alert, snipers and spotters were positioned on roof tops around the complex, helicopters circled, and hundreds more police and national guardsmen were quietly out of sight. The giant flag usually flying at the state Vietnam Memorial was removed to prevent damage.

Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey told reporters the arrest Friday of a man who planned a counter protest as well as the national guard troops on hand served to keep people away.

“I hope nothing happens.” said Mayor Dailey. “I hope that we continue to have the peaceful days we always do and that we enjoy. But hope alone is not a plan. We are prepared. The great men and women of our law enforcement community have been working around the clock, have been working at every level. We are prepared.”

The order calling up the national guard has them activated through Thursday, the day after Joe Biden’s inauguration. State police are also expected to remain at heightened alertness through mid week. 

The capital city cancelled its annual Martin Luther King Day parade set for tomorrow. It has been rescheduled for February 6th. 

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Feds Arrest Man Accused of Encouraging Violence Against Capitol Protesters

January 15th, 2021 by Jake Stofan
A man accused of planning violence at the State Capitol appeared before a federal magistrate Friday afternoon. 
 
The man arrested is accused of making violent threats online and encouraging his followers to take up arms against protesters next week.

Tallahassee resident Daniel Baker was arrested Friday.
Federal law enforcement alleges he encouraged violence against protesters expected to hold demonstrations at the Capitol starting Sunday.
US Attorney for Florida’s Northern District Lawrence Keefe told us earlier this week, law enforcement had been working to identify threats before they manifested.
“Trying to detect, disrupt and dismantle any coordinated efforts to attack any capitol,” said Keefe.
Baker, a former US Army infantryman, took part in a number of last summer’s protests against police brutality according to the affidavit.
Numerous social media posts attributed to Baker are cited, including a Facebook event he created entitled “Defend Tallahassee”.
While the affidavit contains screen shots of Baker’s online activity, it appears all of his social media accounts have been removed, except for his youtube page, which contains videos condemning police, President Trump and even President Elect Biden.
The affidavit also alleges he created a flier, encouraging followers to ‘encircle terrorists who attack the capitol’.
The flier also states an ‘armed coup’ can only be stopped by an ‘armed community’.
After his first appearance in federal court, Baker’s public defender Randy Murrell told us he’ll be held at least until his next court hearing scheduled for Thursday morning.
“Yes we are going to ask for his release on Thursday,” said Murrell.
In a statement, US Attorney Lawrence Keefe said the arrest serves as a message to anyone intending to commit violence. 
He added authorities will remain on high alert and that the public is safer now that Baker is in custody.
 
Tallahassee’s Mayor has requested the Governor activate the National Guard for the upcoming protests. 
 
Nearby Universities FAMU and FSU have also indicated they’ll be increasing police presence on campus next week.

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Lawmakers to Criminalize Vaccine Scams

January 14th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Floridians, especially seniors, are one step closer to being protected from scams relating to the COVID vaccine.

The first bill approved by a newly created legislative committee on the pandemic would make it a felony for someone to fraudulently charge someone for offering to put them at the front of the vaccine line.

Reports of vaccine scams are growing.

Jared Moskowitz is the Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management and is in charge of the vaccine distribution network.

“People are trying to set up fake calendars, fake appointments. You know, we have foreign actors trying to hack systems. I mean, it’s just the worst of society,” said Moskowitz.

Seniors are top targets and Zayne Smith with AARP said members are calling about offers to pay to get on a vaccination list.

“I mean, if you pay us now, you’ll have your vaccine tomorrow. Those are so egregious against people who are really vulnerable right now, and just wanting to get back to normal life,” said Zyne Smith.

Government publications are clear.

If someone wants you to pay them to get on a list to be vaccinated, go to the head of the list or if they want your social security number or credit card information, it’s likely a fraud.

The first bill to come out of the newly created State House Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee would make it a felony to offer to put someone at the front of the vaccine line.

“I think this bill sends a loud and clear message, that hey, if you engaged in this type of activity, we’re coming after you,” said bill sponsor Rep. Ardian Zika.

AARP calls the legislation a big step in the right direction.

“You know, this bill and the move by the legislature right now to really cut this off right now before it becomes a bigger issue is great and something we really appreciate,” said Smith.

The early movement of the legislation is designed to send the message to fraudsters to stop now, before major jail time is on the table.

A first offense would be punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

A second conviction could earn perpetrators up to 15 years behind bars.

In addition to criminal charges, the Attorney General can also file civil actions to recover damages.

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Lawmakers Face $2.1 Billion Budget Shortfall

January 14th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

State lawmakers are facing a $2.1 billion pandemic-induced budget shortfall for the budget starting in July, and that’s the best case scenario according to state economists.

The revenue shortfall means lawmakers will face tough decisions crafting next years state budget.

The word of the day at the first meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee was unprecedented.

“The work before us is unprecedented and there’s going to be a lot demanded on this committee to think innovatively, to think how we can do things efficiently,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Kelli Stargel.

While state economists project a $2.1 billion shortfall, the number is heavily dependent on how the economy recovers, something difficult to project in a once in a lifetime pandemic.

“If you just run your models, they don’t know how to deal with this event,” said Amy Baker, a state economist at the Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

Most uncertain, is the recovery of the tourism sector.

State economists predict it could take between one and two years.

“We don’t expect it to come back whole cloth even in that slow recovery,” said Baker.

And the state is also facing higher expenditures on social programs like Medicaid, which is projected to increase by $700 million.

That means lawmakers will have to look for cuts anywhere they can.

“We’re going to have a conservative budget. I’m not going to build a budget this year on the high hopes of the future,” said Stargel.

Looking to add revenue, legislative leaders already have ideas in the works.

Among them, collecting state sales already owed tax on internet purchases.

That would increase revenues by at least $700 million a year.

“I don’t believe that it’s a tax increase. I think it’s a tax collection issue, not a tax increase issue. We’re not changing the tax at all,” said Stargel.

The latest budget projections are nearly $600 million better than in September.

Additional federal stimulus could paint an even more optimistic picture, at least in the short term.

State economists’ latest projections are largely based on data from November and September.

It’s not clear how those numbers may change as a result of the fall and winter COVID spike the state has experienced since then.

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Study Shows Women, Black Floridians Less Likely to Trust Vaccine

January 14th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

A new study from the University of South Florida released today shows that men are more likely to get vaccinated at 64 percent, compared to just 53 percent of women.

African Americans are also less likely than others to get a vaccine.

The study found 60 percent of both whites and Hispanics said they will either “probably” or “definitely” get vaccinated, compared to only 49 percent of African Americans.

State Representative Fentrice Driskell said the distrust dates back to when Black share croppers infected with syphilis, were enrolled in the Tuskegee Experiment and intentionally not treated throughout the program’s 40-year run.

“There also can be concern about, in the African American community, mistrust just generally of doctors and people not going to get check ups as regularly as they should. So when that’s the baseline, it’s even much more difficult to get some members of that community to be willing to try something deemed as experimental as a new vaccine,” said Driskell.

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DEM Getting Short Notice of Vaccine Supply

January 14th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Jared Moskowitz, Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management said Thursday his second biggest problem, behind basic supply of vaccine, is that he only gets a six day notice on the number of new doses being sent to the state, creating problems in the distribution system.

“Well we’re building infrastructure, we’re expanding, we’re trying to bring more locations online and then we can’t feed them or locations that are open, close because we can’t re-feed them. So it is a gigantic issue,” said Moskowitz.

On Wednesday the state’s Surgeon General reported the federal government is supplying between 200,000 and 250,000 doses a week.

If that rate doesn’t increase, the state could be looking at more than a year before it’s able to vaccinate the general population.

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